When he was hired on an interim basis in 2007, Bruce Boudreau had kicked around the minor leagues since the 1992-93 season, holding illustrious gigs with the Muskegon Fury, the Fort Wayne Komets and the Lowell Lock Monsters before taking over the Hershey Bears.
He was 52 years old when the Capitals promoted him from Hershey of the AHL. It was a moment of patience rewarded, goodwill paid forward. No one expected him to win the Jack Adams; he was a cherub with a whistle, a well-liked players’ guy whose biggest claim to fame was being an extra in “Slap Shot.”
The Capitals were in a spiral, having lost 15 of 21 games in 2007-08 and hearing nothing in the way of solutions from coach Glen Hanlon. That morbid tone that accompanies nearly every playoff loss for the Capitals? It permeated every crack and corner of the Verizon Center that regular season until Hanlon was fired and Boudreau was hired.
There were two transformative moments for the Capitals after the 2005 lockout that turned this rudderless franchise, that existed in a lonely niche in the D.C. sports scene, into one with a massive, into one with a loyal fan base that’s turned the arena into a sold-out party.
The first is the arrival of Alex Ovechkin, the biggest star in Capitals history and the most electrifying player the NHL had seen since Pavel Bure’s prime.
The second is the hiring Bruce Boudreau.
Ovechkin was already a star when Boudreau took over: Winning the Calder as a rookie, following it with 46 goals. What he lacked was success, and that’s what Boudreau brought to the Capitals. Say what you will about their lack of postseason fortune – and trust us, plenty has been said – but Boudreau’s Capitals won four straight division titles and made the playoffs for five consecutive seasons.
It’s not enough in a crowded U.S. market to be an exciting team or to have a star player if neither of those things are framed by a franchise’s success. Boudreau had it from the season he arrived: Going 37-17-7 in his interim year, including an 11-1-0 streak to end the campaign that gave the Capitals the Southeast.
Thus began the “Rock The Red” era for the Capitals. Ovechkin flourished. Backstrom and Semin put up huge numbers. Mike Green scored 31 goals under Boudreau’s watch. The team finished third and first in goals-for over the next two seasons. The best defense was, in fact, their offensive, coming at opposing teams in waves and controlling play.
Suddenly Capitals games were hot tickets. The crowds swelled. The traditions began. The fans would party before and after the games at the local bars, and scream until their lungs ached inside. This was a palpable home ice advantage.
The success was one aspect. The style of play was another. If the Capitals had won multiple division titles playing the trap, they don’t grow the fan base in the same way. Boudreau’s style was catnip. It was addictive.
Of course, he was also the best ambassador for that style. As criticized as Ovechkin could be for his flash, Boudreau remained the darling of local and national media. His self-deprecation and jovial approach won over many that would otherwise slam the Capitals. His starring role in “HBO 24/7” may had trafficked in buffoonery thanks to the editing, but he felt more human after four episodes than ever.
None of this was sustainable, mind you. Not for the team and not for the coach. His sharp turn to defense after playoff failures sapped both Boudreau and the team of their identity. Soon there were feuds with stars. Soon the magic of those first few seasons was crushed by the weight of expectations.
By the time he was fired in 2011, it was time to go. Time for Boudreau to start fresh in Anaheim. Time for the Capitals to start over with a new coach. And then another.
But every time I walk into that arena and see a sea of red or hear the crowd echo when the Capitals surge offensively, I think of Boudreau’s tenure. It didn’t bring the most important banners to D.C., but it brought a few. It didn’t lead to the ultimate dream achieved, but it produced lasting memories.
It was more fun than Capitals fans could remember having in D.C., and to this day they come back every season in an attempt to capture those vibes again.